Languages can remap your world

Robert Heinlein in “Stranger in a Strange Land” reflects on how speaking another language changes your way of seeing the world around you. But I love how he explains why English is such a complicated yet expressive language. My Francophone friends will appreciate the statement concerning controlling the purity of a language (this is an Arab doctor speaking):

“You will understand, then, how difficult I found English. It was not alone that my native language has much simpler inflections and more limited tenses; the whole ‘map’ changed. English is the largest of the human tongues, with several times the vocabulary of the second largest language – this alone made it inevitable that English would eventually become, as it did, the lingua franca of this planet, for it is thereby the richest and most flexible – despite its barbaric accretions…or should I say, because of its barbaric accretions. English swallows up anything that comes its way, makes English out of it. Nobody tried to stop this process, the way some languages are policed and have official limits…probably because there never has been truly, such a thing as ‘the King’s English’ – for the ‘King’s English’ was French. English was in truth a bastard tongue and nobody cared how it grew…and it did! – enormously. Until no one could hope to be an educated man unless he did his best to embrace this monster.
Its very variety, subtlety, and utter irrational, idiomatic complexity makes it possible to say things in English which simply cannot be said in any other language. It almost drove me crazy…until I learned to think in it – and that put a new ‘map’ of the world in top of the one I grew up with. A better one, in many ways – certainly a more detailed one.”

A linguist would say that Heinlein erred in his comprehension of how languages express thought and whether the size of the vocabulary is the best metric for that evaluation. And that is reflected in the doctor’s concluding thought: “But nevertheless there are things which can be said in the simple Arabic tongue that cannot be said in English.”

Either way, it’s an amusing perspective nonetheless. And my geek friends will recognize this as the preamble to Heinlein finally defining his luminescent addition to the English language: the word “grok.” A word he freely used for the first 242 pages before finally almost breaking the fourth wall and providing a tutor session for this highly versatile word.

We would do well in today’s world it seems if more people took the time to grok other concepts, principles, and people before developing a passionate opinion about them. Of course, that would require spending more time thinking and less time tweeting or other types of posting on social media. The Web remains a very reactive environment.

What happened to Thanksgiving?

The third week of November is upon us with a serious chill in the air and children asking for this week’s homework early because their parents are trying not to let school get in the way of education, or at least Thanksgiving vacation.

What’s that you say? Traditions are changing? Yes as a matter of fact they are.  I was rereading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods this week and found myself musing on the “decline of the influence of traditions and gods on the American psyche” that Gaiman explored back in 2001. What’s fascinating is how aptly he predicts that manner in which media and other modern influences shift attention of Americans away from so many of their traditional pursuits  and interests well before the modern Internet, social media and mobile connectivity had overtaken our lives.  How interesting can Odin or Easter possibly be when Call of Duty, iPhone and Facebook are calling?

There’s an enlightening dialogue between Wednesday (Odin) and the female embodiment of Easter in the novel that speaks to this question:

“You’re one of us,” he said. “You’re as forgotten and as unloved and unremembered as any of us. It’s pretty clear whose side you should be one.”

Easter put her slim hand on the back of Wednesday’s square gray hand. “I’m telling you,” she said, “I’m doing fine. On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and flesh, to represent rebirth. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name. More and more of them every year. In my name, old wolf.”

“Serious question, m’dear. Certainly I would agree that millions upon millions of them give each other tokens in your name, and that they still practice all the rites of your festival, even down to the hunting for hidden eggs But how many of them know who you are? …Shall we go out on the street, Easter my dear, and find out how many passers-by know that their Easter festival takes its name [in English at least] from Eostre of the Dawn?”

The whole premise of the conflict that brews between old traditions and modern distractions in the novel is that traditions change even fade away as new “gods” take their place.

It’s illuminating how poets like Shel Silverstein explore the modern shift where instead of sacrificing food and gifts to Baal or Ganesha, many Americans today lay out their trays of food and sacrifice to the gods of NFL Sunday and Netflix as they dine and are immersed in another world that perhaps diverts them from the stresses and struggles of every day life.

What does this have to do with Thanksgiving?  Well that traditions are in a constant state of flux and that  if our most recent election has taught us anything then it’s that retailers and CPG manufacturers have a very real challenge on their hands at navigating an agitated and increasingly diverse public.

So how will we celebrate this, the most American of holidays this year?  What shifts are happening today and how will that change the common narrative that unites us in food, family, and fun?

Many will pursue the very traditional dishes of turkey, potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, cranberry relish and pumpkin pie.


But with a changing cultural base a growing mass are far more willing to increase the number of meals and the foods on the table than the standard Thanksgiving picture would present.  How many of you celebrated Friendsgiving this week?


If you’re a Millennial then it’s quite likely that you did and you also had tabouleh or chicken vindaloo or arroz con pollo or a good classic Ghanaian fufu along side that tofurkey.


Times they are a changing and old traditions that we thought we understood will evolve until that classic Rockwell image Freedom From Want is perhaps as anachronistic as the idea of ice barns from which blocks of ice were delivered weekly to keep the refrigerator cold. In the mind of a market strategist this means you cannot simply assume that your customers will always be the same and expect the same from you year in and year out. No, trends are accelerating in many ways and traditions are evolving that require a close ear to the ground.

But as always change represents a grand land of opportunity if you know how to read the tea leaves properly. Families of various types will likely still gather together on the third week of November. And they want to share love by breaking bread, er tortillas, er naan, well you get the picture.